Spheres of Dialogue: Giving Humanitarians on the Frontlines the Space to Talk Online

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By Claude Bruderlein

Humanitarian workers must often strike a difficult balance between assisting those in need, while remaining safe and keeping their humanitarian principles intact. To do this, they must negotiate for access and protection with a variety of counterparts. If negotiations fail, people affected by armed conflict may not receive the help they so urgently need.

These days, negotiators are facing an additional challenge: how to reach vulnerable populations during a pandemic, where movement is restricted and keeping our distance means saving lives. As pressure to address these global challenges mounts, many civil society organizations focus on galvanizing the political will of governments to act. While this approach is an effective mobilization strategy, it often fails to deliver practical and incremental measures needed to tackle large-scale challenges. This lack of practical measures has been particularly visible during the current pandemic, with travel and movement restrictions accelerating the disconnect between field practitioners and policymakers who are responding to crises.

To help address this, the Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN) has created the project “Spheres of Dialogue.” Designed to offer safe, virtual spaces, this project allows humanitarians to engage with professionals and experts from different countries, organizations and interest groups. They can also share best practices on a range of global crises such as the current pandemic, irregular migration and armed conflicts.

The project uses the latest technology to create an informal environment that is as personable and convivial as possible. When users share and analyze local experiences of negotiation, it helps them exercise and develop their own critical skills as they evaluate and measure the impact of new strategies and tactics. The informal nature of the platform also means they can build cogent professional networks that transcend gender, cultural, institutional and political barriers.

These “Spheres of Dialogue” also include contributions from researchers and academics who are focusing on specific issues, such as the response to the pandemic in areas under siege, remote negotiation or the humanitarian crises in Libya, Somalia and Yemen.

Users of the platform not only have the opportunity to improve their skills and learn about new tools, but they can also gain a professional certificate, which is accredited through a partnership between the CCHN, Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the INALCO University of Languages and Civilizations, a member of Alliance Sorbonne in Paris.

The current platform in the Middle East and the forthcoming one in South and South-East Asia are examples of network-based initiatives akin to think tanks. Field practitioners, supported by experts, are using the platform to review their tactics for responding to the pandemic, including the access to vaccination programs. The CCHN believes that virtual spaces like these will help transform international relations by bringing field practitioners closer together. It will also help to develop common perspectives and tools that go beyond the confines of organizational policy circles, which are mostly located in the North.

Many organizations are finding that their coordination and policy mechanisms are under strain as they attempt to keep up with practice in the field. They are no longer able to be physically present because of the pandemic and their ability to contribute to the design of field operations is therefore limited.

It is hoped that the CCHN platform will foster new relationships that cut across borders, organizations and issues and that the platform’s success will act as a precursor and driver of more robust, practical and innovative approaches for addressing global challenges, both now and in the future.

Views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Paris Peace Forum.

Claude Bruderlein, Strategic Advisor to the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and lead researcher on ICRC negotiation practices

In October 2016, he was elected Director of the joint Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN). He has been engaged in international humanitarian action since 1985. From 1990–1995, he worked in humanitarian assistance and protection with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Iran, Israel and the Occupied Territories, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Yemen as well as in Geneva as a legal advisor to ICRC operations. In 1996, he joined the United Nations in New York as Special Advisor on Humanitarian Affairs. He worked particularly on humanitarian access in Afghanistan and North Korea as well as the humanitarian impact of sanctions at the Strategic Planning Unit of the Executive Office of the UN Secretary General. He maintains a faculty research and teaching appointment at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and School of Public Health.

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